As the proverbial leaves and branches of the Oak tree continue to whittle away, underneath, its roots are expanding, growing ever deeper into the soil.
The last of the old guard in this case are the A’s, whose ownership has (for now) decided that Oakland is no longer for them. The growth, on the other hand, stems from the aptly named Oakland Roots soccer club, whose owners, after winning over the hearts and minds of locals, have launched a brand new women’s team called the Oakland Soul.
It’s taken nearly a year for the organization to bring the team to life.
First, was committing to being one of eight founding members of a new NorCal Division within the USL W League, a pre-professional women’s competition under the umbrella of the United Soccer League, the second division of American soccer. [The first division, consisting of Major League Soccer (MLS) and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), are closed competitions, where expansion rights are subject to fees approaching nine digits and selective bidding.]
Then, came the hiring of the leader of the team, its first-ever head coach. In March, the Roots tabbed former Fordham and Boston University coach Jessica Clinton for the job.
“When [the Roots] announced Soul, it was a no-brainer for me to apply,” Clinton said at the team’s state-of-the-art training facility Alameda, ahead of their W League debut. The club’s stated commitment to supporting social justice causes and partnering with local community organizations, she said, was part of the draw. “I wanted to be a part of it so badly from afar. There are not many, if any, organizations that are following what the Roots are doing in terms of their mission statement.”
After coaching college and youth soccer for over 15 years, Clinton said that the club’s ambition to eventually form a fully professional women’s side was an obvious appeal. She doesn’t mind having to start in the pro-am circuit to get there.
“Women now have the chance to stay, grow, and develop,” Clinton said. Before the launch of the Soul or the recent announcement that a “Bay Area” NWSL team is coming in 2024, the pathways for players to make a professional living here were few and far between.
“Not to say that it’s easy for them, but men have enjoyed this sort of access and number of opportunities for a long time,” Clinton said. “What the USL is doing, is truly advancing the women’s game.”
Starting a team from scratch
While the U.S. Women’s National Team has flourished since the ‘90s, professional women’s leagues have stopped and started for decades. For reference, the top-flight NWSL, where stars such as Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan play, is only about 10 years old and currently only fields 12 teams.
The USL is launching its own professional league too, called the “USL Super League,” but that isn’t slated to begin play until August 2024. So until that happens, the Soul will be competing in the next closest thing—the aforementioned W League.
Since it is a “pre-professional” competition, W League rosters are made up mostly of out-of-season student-athletes and aspiring or former professionals, and the players do not receive a salary. For the student-athletes, this ensures that they won’t lose their college eligibility.
Roots technical director Jordan Ferrell, who oversees the club’s men’s, women’s and youth teams told The Oaklandside that he and Clinton tried keeping the long-term vision of the club in mind when building this season’s roster.
“Over half of the squad is under 20 years old,” Ferrell said. “We easily could have just loaded up on older players to try and win right away, but we wanted to lay down the foundation for a [Super League] roster down the road.”
“If players have a couple of good seasons within our organization, we hope that they choose to continue with us when the time to go professional comes,” Ferrell said. “There are more opportunities on the horizon [like the World Cup or NWSL], but not everybody is necessarily ready or has the option to go to that level yet.”
Apart from the paycheck, players who make the Soul roster are treated as equals to their male counterparts on the professional Roots team. They use the same training facilities, share some assistant coaches, and receive full medical treatment. The women also have uniquely designed home and away jerseys—a small but significant touch that’s not always afforded to women’s teams that open up shop inside a men’s club.
“There haven’t been many ‘no’s’ [during recruitment], I’ll tell you that,” Clinton said. “The soccer part is easy. It’s all of the things outside of that—player safety, welfare, support, and resources that make this attractive to players.”
“And you can’t take those things for granted,” she added. “Injuries will happen and you can’t just wait until someone is put in a bad or inappropriate situation to react and come up with policies.”
In multiple investigations, including one by former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, it was found that abusive behavior and sexual misconduct continue to be reported in more than half of the teams in the NWSL.
‘Reclaiming my love for soccer’
While the bulk of the team is young, as Ferrell and Clinton intended, the three first-ever captains of the Soul have been around the block and have many stories to tell.
Miranda Nild, 26, of Castro Valley, is probably the most well-known of the bunch. On top of being captain of the Cal [Berkeley] team during her time in college, she reached one of the pinnacles of the sport when she played in the 2019 Women’s World Cup, representing Thailand, her father’s birth country.
After that, she had brief spells as a professional in the NWSL in Sweden and Iceland. By late 2022, she was starting to wind down her soccer career until Clinton reached out about joining the Soul.
“I thought it was just going to be another summer league team, but I’ve been blown away since day one,” Nild said. “[The Soul] is more serious than some pro teams I’ve been on.”
“The Roots have developed such a solid foundation that we’re now getting a chance to grow off of,” Nild said. Against the famous USWNT in 2019, she started up top as a striker. Now, for the Soul, she said fans can find her anywhere from forward, to midfield, to wingback.
“My role is that I’m here to entertain,” she said, flashing a smile.
Forward Samantha Tran, 24, on the other hand, while as decorated of a college player as Nild (she starred for two-time NCAA champions Stanford), said she had to relearn some of the instincts she had left on the field nearly three years ago.
Tran told The Oaklandside that her college soccer career had taken a toll on her both physically and mentally in ways she couldn’t quite comprehend at the time, and that she graduated feeling completely burned out from the sport. So she stopped playing for a while.
“Women’s soccer can be a hard and unforgiving world, with a lot less grace,” said Tran, who now works at Life Academy, a small public high school in East Oakland. It wasn’t until she started coaching youth soccer, that she rediscovered her love for the game.
When the Soul opened for tryouts, she eagerly applied.
“It has exceeded my expectations,” Tran said. “The Roots have done an awesome job of making this feel like ours. I’m at a place where I’m reclaiming my love for soccer again. It’s healing, especially for the inner child.”
Aliyah Jones, one of the few players born in Oakland, thought her playing days had passed her by too. The four-time letter winner at San Jose State graduated in 2018 and went right into coaching and sports operations.
One day, a friend in the soccer industry sent her the announcement about the Soul launching in Oakland.
“[My friend] said, ‘Aliyah, oh my gosh, this is you. You’re from Oakland and you’re all about soul and spirituality,’” Jones said. “So I guess I’ve been manifesting it ever since.”
Jones said she trained all winter in preparation for Soul tryouts, rediscovering old fitness and diet habits that she used to maintain during her playing days. Now, as one of the eldest leaders on the team, she’s hoping to pass down lessons in the sport that she says have shaped her life.
“I never thought I would be in this sort of environment again,” Jones said. “It’s very special and I’m just trying to enjoy each day and not take it for granted.”
The Soul home opener will be at CSU East Bay on May 13 against San Francisco’s Olympic Club. Afterward, all remaining home games will be played at Merritt College. Tickets are available online.